American soldier Travis King is en route to the US after being freed by North Korea
Sep 28, 2023, 7:00 AM
(CNN) — US Army Private Travis King is on a flight back to the United States after being returned to American custody weeks after he crossed into North Korea, according to State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller.
“We appreciate the dedication of the interagency team that has worked tirelessly out of concern for Private King’s wellbeing. In addition, we thank the government of Sweden for its diplomatic role serving as the protecting power for the United States in the DPRK and the government of the People’s Republic of China for its assistance in facilitating the transit of Private King,” US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in the statement.
The freeing of King represents a rare diplomatic success in relations between the US and North Korea. The efforts to retrieve him came at a particularly tense time, as US officials have recently publicly warned Pyongyang against providing weapons to Russia for its fight in Ukraine. Earlier this month, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un traveled into Russia for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The US has also condemned North Korea as it carries out a series of ballistic missile tests that are particular unnerving to South Korea.
Earlier Wednesday, North Korean state media KCNA reported that the secretive state had decided “to expel” King, who entered its territory during a tour of the Joint Security Area (JSA) between North and South Korea in July.
The KCNA report said a North Korean investigation into King “has been finished.”
Miller said that King is now on his way back to the US and is expected to arrive “in the coming hours.”
King was handed off from the North Koreans to the US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns in Dandong, China, according to Miller.
Two US officials told CNN King was brought by a Swedish convoy to the Friendship bridge on the border between North Korea and China.
On the Chinese side of the bridge, the US Defense Attache to China Brigadier General Patrick Teague and Burns met King and took him into US military custody.
Miller said that King then flew to Shenyang, China, and then to Osan Air Force Base in South Korea before departing for the US.
King is expected to be taken to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio upon his return to the US, two US officials said.
Located at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, the medical center is the largest hospital within the Defense Department, according to the hospital’s website.
Brooke Army Medical Center also has a Department of Defense Program known as PISA (Post Isolation Support Activities) to help Americans acclimate back to normal life after being detained. Both Trevor Reed and Brittney Griner went there after they were released from detention in Russia.
US officials said King was released after “intense diplomacy” between multiple countries culminating in Wednesday’s transfer across the border into China and onward to US custody.
“The US government has successfully facilitated Private Travis King’s departure from the DPRK. His transfer culminates a monthslong effort involving multiple US government agencies undertaken out of concern for Private King’s well-being and a desire to reunite him with his family,” a senior administration official said.
In a statement Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder thanked the US Army, US Forces Korea, and the Defense Department for efforts in bringing King home – as well as the governments of China and Sweden “for their assistance.”
The US received word earlier this month from Sweden, which acts as the US protecting power in North Korea, that Pyongyang wanted to release King. Swedish embassy spokesman David Lunderquist confirmed that Sweden played a role in getting King released.
Another US official added Wednesday that China’s role was limited to helping facilitate King’s transfer out of North Korea, but otherwise Bejing did not play a “mediating role.”
Asked whether the US made any concessions to North Korea for the transfer, officials emphatically said no.
“The answer is simple: There were none. Full stop,” the senior official said.
President Joe Biden and other top administration leadership have been “closely briefed and following events as they unfold,” the official added.
Future disciplinary actions unclear
US military officials have said that King, a junior enlisted cavalry scout, “willfully and without authorization” crossed into North Korea in July. King had been released from a detention facility in South Korea just over a week before running across the demarcation line – punishment which appeared to stem from an October 2022 incident in which he allegedly pushed and punched a victim in the face at a club in Seoul, according to court documents.
The day before he crossed into North Korea, King was supposed to board a flight to Texas, where he was to face disciplinary procedures. But after Army escorts released him at a security checkpoint at Incheon International Airport near Seoul, King left the airport on his own.
The next day, he joined a tour of the JSA he had previously booked with a private company.
There is no physical barrier inside the JSA, and a US official previously said that after bolting over the demarcation line delineating the border, King tried to enter a North Korean facility – but the door was locked. He then ran to the back of the building, at which point he was hurried into a van and driven away by North Korean guards.
North Korea claimed on Wednesday that King has “confessed that he illegally intruded into the territory of the DPRK as he harbored ill feeling against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the U.S. army and was disillusioned about the unequal U.S. society.”
CNN cannot verify whether these are King’s own words. But pressed on Wednesday by CNN’s Jeremy Diamond whether King wanted to return to the US, the official said, it became “quite clear” to US diplomats that “Private King was very happy to be on his way home.”
It’s unclear if King could face additional disciplinary actions by the military upon his return. Asked Wednesday if King could be facing court martial, an official emphasized that the focus for the next several weeks would be on King’s health as he gets back “on solid footing.”
“We’ll address any administrative actions that may follow after the reintegration process,” the official said.
The official added that the focus within the military is having a “very talented and experienced team” evaluate King and address “any medical and emotional concerns.” Asked about his absent without leave, or AWOL, status, the official said they would work through “all those administrative status questions following the completion of his reintegration.”
King is ‘looking forward to being reunited with his family’
As King makes his way back to the US, an official said that he is currently in “good health and good spirits.” His health had been of particular concern to officials who previously said they had been trying to get more information from North Korea.
A high-profile incident of another American being held in the country ended tragically, as American college student Otto Warmbier’s health seriously deteriorated while in North Korean custody. Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, but was returned to the US in 2017 and died of severe brain damage less than a week after his return to the US.
A spokesperson for King’s mother, Claudine Gates said she will be “forever grateful” for the efforts to free her son.
“Ms. Gates will be forever grateful to the United States Army and all its interagency partners for a job well done. For the foreseeable future, the family asks for privacy, and Ms. Gates does not intend to give any interviews,” the statement from Jonathan Franks said. Officials added on Wednesday that a call was facilitated between King and his family.
“He is very much looking forward to being reunited with his family,” an official said. “That is the sentiment that is pervading all else right now.”